In the not so distant future, my wife's little sister, Katy and her husband, Alex will welcome their first child into the world. Since the gender of the baby is still a mystery to us all and will not be revealed until birth, he/she is being affectionately referred to as "Baby Betz" which is the family surname. Few times in life are as exciting as the birth of a child and your first child even more so.
Naturally, this got me thinking about the birth of my own firstborn, Emma. She's ten years old already. I couldn't help but think about being in Alex's shoes and what I would tell myself if I could go back in time to the months preceding her birth.
Initially, my advice to myself consisted of three things. First I would say: "Manage your time better you dummy." Secondly, I would say: "Here's a list of stocks that performed well and teams that won their respective championships over the next ten years. Invest wisely and bet heavily." Lastly, I thought I'd say: "Put that cheeseburger down and eat more vegetables. You'll thank me later. Or I'll thank you later. Or we'll thank each other later. I don't know, time travel is confusing. "
After these three nuggets of wisdom passed I tried to focus specifically on the bits of advice I'd give myself in terms of parenting and being a husband based on lessons I've learned over these past ten years of being a father. So Alex, here are the things I wish I knew back then. May this free and unasked for (and probably unhelpful) advice provide you with beneficial insights into the days ahead for you and your family.
#1: Be the man.
I've heard lots of men tell me they've never changed a diaper, and they never plan to. Others have said they would never carry their daughter's diaper bag cause it was pink, or a diaper bag in general cause it wasn't manly. Some have said they never got up at night when the baby woke up for a midnight feeding because they had to work and their wife was staying home.
I never bought into any of this logic, and I've never regretted that. I think a key to long term success in marriage is respect more than popular modern notions of "Love" and "Attraction". Many marriages are built or destroyed in the time period just after a baby because respect for the husband is either gained or lost.
I changed my first daughter's first diaper the day she was born. If you do this, do not be alarmed if it looks something akin to removing the drain plug from your car's oil pan. It's disgusting but Doctors say it's normal. I assume they're right since they went to school for so long. Most of the time when our children got up in the middle of the night I went and got them and brought them to my wife. Sometimes I stayed up with her while she fed them. Sometimes I slept while she fed them and I took them back to bed when they were finished. Either way, I tried to be active and involved, and I recommend you do the same. I've never regretted it, and I know I earned a lot of respect in the eyes of my wife for doing so.
I needed that respect too. Since then I've lost a lot 'cause I'm kinda a train wreck.
It might be funny to hear a guy bragging about how little he was involved in the day-to-day activities of child rearing but you can almost guarantee his wife isn't impressed by his false machismo.
While on this subject let me also remind you that you're going to be 50% of this kid's parents. That might seem obvious but today people downplay the importance of a father. Don't be fooled, you're just as vital. There will be times when the baby will be crying for no good reason. Society tells you that this means you must run in and pick up the kid. If you don't they will grow up to hate you, they'll have low self-confidence or become ax murderers. Don't believe this. People only tell you this for two reasons. They've never had children themselves, or they hate other people and like to see them suffer. Those are the only two reasons anyone would advise you to pick up a child every time they cry. There will be times your loving wife will think she must hold the baby, and your logic will be required to determine that it's been fed, watered and changed, therefore it's lying and nothing is wrong. Don't worry, it won't be the last time your child lies to you. But to be on the safe side, I recommend you keep all the axes hidden in your house.
With your first kid, every sniffle or tear draws a reaction from you and your wife like they are playing in traffic. By your third kid, you will check to ensure the crib is free of hand-grenades and razor-blades and then put them in before you crash into your own bed at night.
#2: Get on the floor son.
Looking back at that time when Emma was first born, I am sad to say I don't remember a lot. During this time I remember working a lot, being busy, but sadly I don't remember lying on the ground and playing with her all that much. Don't listen to those guys who tell you babies aren't any fun, or who say that children are only cool once they are older and they can talk and can do stuff. Those guys don't know what they're talking about.
Sure babies can't do anything. Their purpose in life at this point is pretty much to drain you of all of your "Big Three" resources; Time, Energy and Money. They can't do anything useful like mow the grass, gut a deer or give you a hair cut. But that doesn't mean they aren't fun.
Don't get me wrong, I've never enjoyed anyone else's babies. Here's a bit of forewarning for you. I might visit you guys in the hospital but if you ask me if I want to hold the baby I'll probably say no. The reasons are two fold. For one thing, I am terrified of dropping things, and you know me, I'm fairly untrustworthy. Also, I don't derive any real enjoyment from holding other people's kids. They all look alike to me and I have no emotional attachment to them. So I know that in the room there are probably better candidates who would use the time to much greater benefit like my wife, our mother-in-law, or even you or Katy.
But I enjoyed all my kids when they were babies. I just wish I had taken more time to enjoy it. There's something fun about seeing them experiencing everything new, recognizing your face, making them laugh or hearing them loudly poop in the most somber of settings like the checkout lane at the grocery, during prayer at church, or a eulogy at a funeral.
Play with the baby. Read to them (I recommend Good Night Moon). Make silly faces and try to make them laugh. Eventually, they will be walking around, destroying everything and talking so much you want to go out into the woods and climb a tree. Then you'll wish for the times that you could get on the floor and play in peace and quiet.
#3: Keep Calm.
Let me paint you a picture. You pull into your driveway, home from work, looking forward to seeing your loving wife and new child and finding out how their day was. You walk in the door filled with the anticipation of a wonderful meal, some quality time with your child and a nice quiet evening with your family. However...
When you walk in, the house is a bit of a mess. Dishes are everywhere, food crunches in the carpet, the baby is in the pack-and-play in the living room screaming and your wife is standing at the kitchen counter quietly sobbing. What do you do?
Don't make any sudden movements. Stay calm.
Since both of us are hunters I will put it this way. This isn't a situation where you don't make sudden movements as in you've just walked out into the woods and stumbled across a deer grazing in a meadow and you don't want to spook it. No, this is more like you've stumbled into the den of an angry bear and you don't want to draw its attention.
The lovely young lady at the counter might look like your wife. She might sound like your wife. But at the moment, it's best to imagine that she is not, in fact, your wife, but said bear, hopped up on amphetamines and Angel Dust.
You might wonder, why is the house a mess? This is the wrong question. I do NOT advise you ask it.
You might wonder, why is she crying. This is a better question. The answer requires a bit of understanding.
There is so much pressure on a young mother these days. They must be the perfect mixture of June Cleaver, Mrs. Brady, and the latest Hollywood vixen on the screen. Between society, church, in-laws, friends, family, television and movies, everyone expects her to be something and those expectations are nearly always flawed and impossible. But no one will expect more from her than she will herself. Chances are good, she'll be crying because she's running on 2-4 hours of sleep, she's hungry but obsessing over the baby weight that hasn't come off, she's tired of seeing to the baby's needs and feeling guilty that she's tired of being pulled, pooped on or screamed at. She'll feel a bit guilty the house is a mess, and that she should have dinner made, but she burnt the rolls in the oven because the baby spilled their Cheerios in the carpet and the dog chewed them to powder before she could stop it.
This is where you're calm intellect is needed.
When your wife notices you, as she surely will, remain calm and motionless. Just as though you'd walked in on a drug addled bear, don't appear threatening but don't appear weak either. You're going for a look that says 'I'm too much work to fight right now, seek out other targets.'
Don't say something like: "Hey, what's wrong?"
This will reveal to your wife something she has quietly known for a long time. You're an idiot. In fact, those will likely be the next words out of her mouth. Before you get mad, think about it. Isn't it pretty obvious what's wrong? It is sort of a stupid question, after all.
Instead say something like: "Hey honey, what can I do to help?"
This tells her you are not blind, you see that things are a mess, but you're not upset about this. The key here is to not add more of an expectational burden to her. If you do, you may find scissors sticking out of your neck and you'll die thinking something deep like: "Dang, how'd she move so fast?"
Part of remaining calm is a balancing act of showing you DO see what's happening, but you DON'T see it at the same time. Crack open the wallet and order pizza. Tell her it's a movie night. Dishes are dirty, so grab paper plates. The carpet is crunchy, so wear slippers.
Better yet, tuck her into bed, kiss her on the forehead and you hang out with the baby while you clean the house.
That will go a long way to avoiding that whole scissors in the neck thing I mentioned earlier.
#4: Play Good Defense.
You and I are both sports guys, so I will give you a sports metaphor. Your new job as a father extends to more than just your wife and child. Now you must play defense. Against what you ask?
That's right. You might not realize it, but other women are going to come out of the woodwork and assault your wife with their opinions. You will never in your life meet so many experts on so many different topics related to childrearing. Don't be surprised to hear a family friend say something like: "You're not breast feeding? Don't you love your baby? Giselle Bundchen says your baby's going to grow up to collect taxidermy rodents and porcelain clown dolls if you don't breastfeed until their twelve, you monster!" Or something like: "You're using disposable diapers? My word. Don't you love the environment? I think people like you should be rounded up and put into cages!"
While this is a bit extreme, believe me, not by much. Nothing separates people like child rearing. It's up there with religion, politics, money, abortion, same-sex marriage and other topics. Be prepared to see warm and gentle women you've known for years suddenly become miniature versions of Hugh Jackman in the X-Men movies, claws and all.
You might be thinking, aren't you giving me YOUR opinions right now? Yes, I am but I am breaking new ground. I'm warning you against women's opinions that confuse your wife. This is between you and me (and the twenty-four or so odd people who read this blog). You should listen to my advice because I'm an expert and I know what I am talking about. Besides men don't usually give each other advice on child rearing. Most male advice on the subject goes something like this:
Guy #1 talking to Guy #2.
Guy #1: "Hey did you hear my wife's pregnant?"
"No," Guy #2 responds, thinking of something helpful to say. When that fails, he replies with, "You know what causes that right?"
End of advice.
In all seriousness, you're going to have to distract these women, see them coming and throw something in the way to block their path. But be forewarned, these women are better at breaking through defenses than any running back in the NFL. I think that could be the key to turning a bad football team's season around. If the coach simply put a pregnant lady in the proper end-zone then put another woman behind the quarterback and gave her the ball that lady would get through no matter the cost to tell her what books are the best to read, the best diaper rash ointment and whether or not baby formula really is the Devil's Brew.
If Bill Belichick tries this strategy next year, just remember, you heard it here first folks.
#5: Date Your Wife.
As I already mentioned expectations will be high for your wife, and there will come a time when she will simply not have it in the tank anymore to be the caregiver for your child. This doesn't mean she will suddenly be a bad mother. Not at all. In fact, totally exhausted she'll still be a better caregiver to your children than any man fully rested and on performance enhancing drugs. But your wife is like a battery. And your child is a football stadium filled with lights. They will suck all the energy out of you and your wife. It's wonderful yes, but seriously, they will suck you dry.
But you will be a bit better to see this happening. Your wife will secretly know it's happening but she'll feel guilty for needing time away. This is when you must push her (gently, remember the scissors) to get out of the house for a while. Consider this a process. It's like breaking a drug addict. It's best to do it in small doses.
Get a sitter for an hour or so and get her out of the house to grab dinner. She'll feel guilty for being away, but she'll be better for doing so. Like a battery, she will recharge. In fact, she will recharge about a million times faster than you. About one hour away will do her a week's worth of good. That one hour will just about get you through the next hour back home. But hang in there. Eventually, you and she will be able to work up to longer forays into the adult world.
If it's hard to convince her to get out, don't worry, this is normal. Just remember that scene in ET with the Reese's Pieces. Figure out what will lure her out of the house and leave a series of them one after another out to the front porch. It might be chocolate, strawberries, flowers or dollar bills. Whatever it is, when she's on the porch grab her and make a run for the car. My wife will be there to sneak in and spend a little time watching the baby for you. And no, my wife certainly did not threaten me with violence to awkwardly recommend her as a babysitter in this blog.
In all seriousness, I am very happy for you both. What a wonderful time. Be there, be aware and enjoy it. All too soon this time will have passed and you don't want to miss it and look back longingly wishing you had paid better attention.
Oh and one last thing. Sleep when you can. Seriously. It's not a joke, kids get up a lot and sleep is magic. Take naps, sleep when the baby does, hire a maid. It'll be worth it.